Review: The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World by S Jaishankar
S Jaishankar’s wide ranging new book covers the emerging global order, the rise of China and its attendant consequences, nationalism and its discontents, and the Mahabharata as a prism to evaluate Indian strategyUpdated: Oct 23, 2020, 16:58 IST
It’s not often that one gets to read a book by a sitting diplomat, leave alone a sitting cabinet minister. So when a sitting external affairs minister decides to put pen to paper, it is big news especially for students, scholars, analysts and observers of Indian foreign policy.
S Jaishankar’s The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World is a meditation on the sources of India’s conduct on the global stage, and on the evolution of Indian foreign policy at a time of unprecedented changes in the global order. With a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service from 1977 to 2018, which saw him handling the US and China portfolios before becoming Foreign Secretary, and then being appointed as India’s External Affairs Minister by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, his credentials are impeccable when it comes to dissecting India’s options in an increasingly turbulent world. And he does so with a scholar’s sincerity and a practitioner’s panache in this book in an effort “to develop an argumentation on contemporary politics.”
The eight essays here are derived from talks he delivered over the last two years and cover topics as wide ranging as the emerging global order, the shifting priorities of the US, the rise of China and its attendant consequences, the Indo-Pacific dynamic, nationalism and its discontents, the Mahabharata as a prism to evaluate Indian strategy, and post Covid-19 international realities. A few themes that are salient across various sections are an important indicator of changing Indian foreign policy priorities.
Throughout the book, there is a yearning for India to be alive and sensitive to the changing balance of power trends. A greater “realism” in India’s approach to world affairs can yield greater dividends. This may sound perfunctory to many but in a country where senior policymakers have often suggested that India doesn’t do power politics in international affairs, this point is worth underscoring. The second theme that pervades Jaishankar’s analysis is the idea that instead of looking at disruption as a net negative India should not only engage with such trends but should also try to proactively shape them to the nation’s advantage. It is in the very nature of power to evolve and that evolution is always disruptive for some.
The third striking feature of his analysis is his engagement with the issue of the ‘street’ versus the ‘Lutyens elite’ in the framing of Indian foreign policy. Contrary to many who would want foreign policy issues to be devoid of democratic participation, Jaishankar is cognisant of the pressures of public opinion on policy making. He is not only optimistic that India’s innate values will allow it to reconcile its nationalism with global engagement but he even sees India’s nationalistic foreign policy outlook allowing it to engage the world “with more confidence and greater realism.”
For reasons which should be obvious to observers of Indian foreign policy, one of the book’s key themes is the rise of China and what it means for Indian foreign and security policy. In what is likely to be one of the most quoted lines from the book, Jaishankar writes: “This is a time to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play.” The management of China is examined from multiple dimensions – from bilateral and regional to the wider balance of power considerations. Though the book was written before the current crisis erupted along the LAC, Jaishankar was already foreshadowing India’s policy trajectory by suggesting that “the border and the future of ties cannot be separated” and that there is a need for greater reciprocity from China on the economic front. Still, there is a whiff of the Wuhan spirit in these pages as well when Jaishankar writes that “a shared interest in securing the global commons and to contributing to global goods has brought about a convergence between very different polities.”
Finally, this book does something which few books by practitioners have managed to do. It delves into the wider debate on the sources of Indian foreign policy conduct by arguing that “as Indians prepare for greater contributions, they must rely on their own traditions to equip them in facing a tumultuous world.” The study of international relations in India continues to ignore India’s own cultural heritage and intellectual traditions. That is beginning to change and hopefully, the excellent essay in this book on the Mahabharata as “the most vivid distillation of Indian thoughts on statecraft” will energise more robust scholarship on the subject.
There is much to admire in the book but once it is finished, there remains a nagging feeling that the author has held back as much as he has revealed. Though he is certainly impatient with the caution long embedded in Indian strategic thinking, he refuses to fully follow the logic of his own arguments. For example, Jaishankar acknowledges the inherent contradictions in India’s engagements in multiple groupings or with multiple actors but he doesn’t underline fully the costs of this approach which is, in his own words, “a challenge for practitioners and analysts alike.” It is true that in this era of extreme global fluidity, all nations are engaged in diplomatic promiscuity. But India’s regional balance of power is evolving dramatically and largely in a direction which doesn’t support Indian interests. A rising China is challenging India in ways that is unlikely to be managed by merely hedging. The question for New Delhi really is: What is the most efficacious way of bringing its ends and means into balance to manage China’s rise? This question remains hanging in the air all through the book.
Jaishankar wants India to make choices but refuses to articulate those choices. But then reality is always a step ahead. So China’s recent actions along the LAC are now forcing certain choices upon New Delhi which would have looked remote just a few months ago. This brings us to the larger point about the ‘Indian way’ of managing foreign policy. All nations like to think that they are unique, that their culture and history shape their behaviour in ways that are distinct from others. But international relations has a way of disappointing. When the chips are down, all nations try to protect their interests in similar ways. Power politics has its own logic. It subsumes histories and cultures. For all its cultural uniqueness, Chinese behaviour today is a replica of past global powers. For all our ideas about our own unique attributes, who is to say India won’t follow suit if an opportunity arises?
Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College, London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi